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Friday, Aug. 13, 2004

PREMIER REPORT

Time to put distractions aside and get season under way


LONDON -- The buildup to what promises to be the closest, most exciting Premiership ever has been overshadowed by the Football Association soap opera, the Patrick Vieira saga and more recently Michael Owen's propoesed move to Real Madrid.

Christopher Davies

Football, in the accepted sense, has virtually taken a back seat to in-fighting, politics and transfer speculation -- the beautiful game has had an ugly face in recent weeks.

Thanks to Faria Alam, we have learned that England head coach Sven-Goran Eriksson insisted on putting the dirty plates in the dishwasher before enjoying the charms of the former Football Association secretary who had previously been with F.A. chief executive Mark Palios before her transfer to the Swede.

Alam declared her love for Eriksson, a man who hates his private life splashed all over the newspapers so Fire Alarm, as she is nicknamed, may have scored a serious own goal by revealing in two Sunday tabloids when, where and how the pair made love not to mention the dishwasher.

"I feel let down by him because his calls have stopped," said Alam with no sense of irony or hypocrisy.

Vieira, meanwhile, has been "about to" sign for Real Madrid for the past five weeks -- as he was throughout all of last summer. It became a pantomime -- he's going . . . oh no, he's not . . . oh yes, he is. In the end, everyone lost interest in whether he stayed or went, not least because Arsenal seem to have the strength in depth to cope with any loss of its captain.

Owen became the latest player to be linked with Real, though the Liverpool striker must have asked himself where he would fit in an attack where Raul and Ronaldo are certain selections.

Away from the dishwasher and Anglo-Spanish transfers, Arsenal was unbeaten in winning the Premiership last season but to be accepted as a truly great team it needs to retain the title, something it has failed to do under Arsene Wenger (and which Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson has reminded the Gunners of this week in case they had forgotten).

There is a conveyor belt of young talent at Highbury which no other English club can match.

Jose Antonio Reyes, who joined Arsenal from Seville last season, has been outstanding during the preseason, Robin van Persie, a summer arrival from Feyenoord, has been hailed as "the new Dennis Bergkamp," while the display of Cesc Fabregas in midfield, as United was beaten 3-1, in the Community Shield made one wonder how he could only be 17.

Arsenal won the title by 11 points over Chelsea in 2003-04 and Wenger, confident in what he has and what is coming through the ranks, has made few changes to his squad despite the departures of long-serving Ray Parlour, Kanu, Sylvain Wiltord, Martin Keown and possibly Vieira.

As expected it has been all-change at Chelsea with Jose Mourinho, who guided FC Porto to Champions League success last May, taking over from Claudio Ranieri.

Mourinho, out of town when modesty was handed around, will no doubt lock horns with Wenger and Ferguson in the mind games that are part and parcel of the Premiership and the Portuguese does not lack confidence (or much else, according to him).

The seemingly bottomless pit of money available through owner Roman Abramovich, whose investment in new players has been staggering in 13 months, has once again been put to use.

Ranieri had already signed two players -- Dutch winger Arjen Robben (PSV) and Czech Republic goalkeeper Petr Cech (Rennes) -- before his departure, and Mourinho has added five more -- Didier Drogba (Marseille), Paulo Ferreira (FC Porto), Tiago Mendes (Benfica), Mateja Kezman (PSV) and Ricardo Carvalho (FC Porto).

Whether even Mourinho can mold a championship-winning team with so many new faces remains to be seen and the upheaval may cost Chelsea a chance to win its first league title for 49 years.

Whatever Chelsea's fate this season, with Mourinho at the helm life will not be dull.

Liverpool has not gone quite as long without a Championship -- 1990 was its last triumph -- but the board decided Gerard Houllier had taken the club as far as he could and Valencia's Rafa Benitez became another high-profile foreign coach to join the Premiership.

Benitez made Malaga defender Josemi his first buy -- the deal to bring Djibril Cisse of Auxerre to Anfield was already in place.

Danny Murphy moved to Charlton, but as the kickoff to the new season approached whether Owen would remain at Anfield was in the balance.

Manchester United, the fourth heavyweight of English football, has been hit by preseason injuries to Ruud van Nistelsooy and Louis Saha, while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's career is in doubt after further surgery that will sideline the Norwegian for the season.

Sir Alex Ferguson, whose team won the Premiership eight times in 11 years before Arsenal's triumph last season, has signed striker Alan Smith from Leeds United, with Celtic's promising young midfielder Liam Mil-ler now able to learn his trade by watching the master, Roy Keane, first hand.

However, United seems to have too many ordinary players -- David Bellion, Kleberson, Eric Djemba-Djemba -- supplementing its squad.

Rio Ferdinand is suspended until Sept. 20, when his eight-month ban for failing to take a drug test expires.

Until then, Ferguson will use France's Mikael Silvestre -- unimpressive at Euro 2004 -- Wes Brown or John O'Shea in central defense.

France coach Jacques Santini became the unlikely, though belated, successor to Glenn Hoddle who was fired by Tottenham last September.

Spurs' last league title was 43 years ago and Santini has the unenviable job of bringing the glory days back to White Hart Lane.

Spurs released several of their old timers and underachievers -- Christian Ziege, Gus Poyet, Darren Anderton, Serhiy Rebrov and Helder Postiga.

England's backup goalkeeper, Paul Robinson, will help the defense, but once again Spurs have mid-table written all over them.

Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd, whose public relations are not always a strength, told the media this would be Sir Bobby Robson's last season in charge, without informing his manager, who was understandably not happy to hear about his future from the press.

A first league title since 1927 is unlikely -- even with the arrivals of defensive midfielder Nicky Butt and Dutch striker Patrick Kluivert.

Robson's best chance of a farewell trophy appears to be in a Cup competition -- as usual.

A dark horse could be Middlesbrough, which seems to have done good business in bringing strikers Mark Viduka (Leeds) and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (Chelsea) to the Riverside.

A disruption, though, may be if Eriksson leaves his England post (for whatever reason) and 'Boro manager Steve McClaren is asked to take charge of the national team.

Charlton, Aston Villa, Birmingham and Bolton will be among a bunch of middle-class clubs, confident of avoiding relegation, but knowing they won't break into the elite top group.

The likes of Blackburn, Manchester City and Everton will be out to prove that last season's finish just above relegation was a blip. The likelihood is they will be down at the wrong end of the table again and, if relegation appears a realistic prospect, managers Graeme Souness, Kevin Keegan and David Moyes could be looking for new jobs before the end of the season.

Norwich, West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace, the three promoted clubs, are almost certain to spend most of the season chasing the 40-point total that usually guarantees safety.

Back in the top flight for the first time in a decade, Norwich doesn't have the financial backing to strengthen its squad with any big names.

West Brom has found some cash to enable manager Gary Megson to buy seven new players, though Nigerian striker Kanu arrived on a free transfer from Arsenal.

Crystal Palace, promoted by beating West Ham in the Division One playoffs, has in Iain Dowie one of the best young managers in English football.

If Dowie can keep the Eagles flying in the Premiership for another season he can expect offers from bigger clubs to come his way.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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